Morgan, D. (2009). Acquaintances: the space between intimates and strangers. Maidenhead, Open University Press.
Reviewed by Kevin Harris.
Some years ago I published an article in which I raised the need for a typology of encounters, because I couldn't find quite what I wanted. I was after some way of helpfully distinguishing relationships by such features as familiarity (close ties - first name - knowing ties etc) and the degree of freedom of the relationship (coerced - kin - coincidental – voluntary – spontaneous - pragmatic and so on). I found a few bits and pieces to draw on, such as some 1996 Scandinavian research which distinguished ‘acknowledge-contact’, ‘greeting contact’, and ‘helping contact’ as forms of weak tie. But no developed typology.
I thought it would be handy to think more systematically about different kinds of encounters or ‘occasions’ - not just whether contact is face-to-face or remote, synchronous or asynchronous; but also the degree of contrivance, covering for instance coincidence, serendipity, whether predictable or explicable, scheduled or contrived and so on. At the time I wasn't aware of Lyn Lofland's marvellous work on the public realm, which would have helped. And David Morgan had not yet written Acquaintances, which I think it's fair to describe as a preliminary study of people who occupy the space between intimates and strangers.
Morgan approaches the subject mainly at the individual rather than the community or social level. Fundamental to his definition is an appreciation of the knowledge that people have of others, which distinguishes acquaintance from stranger. When it comes to thinking about neighbouring, it's interesting to have the phenomenon of noise defined as 'unwelcome acaquaintanceship knowledge'.
Giving acquaintanceship due recognition seems to have had to wait for the relatively recent development of a sociology of the everyday, and the author explains how acquaintances 'are part of the process of building up a sense of the everyday in time, space, practices and orientations to the world'. He's concerned to get us thinking more positively about the role that acquaintances play in our lives, especially in the cosmopolitan context; and to assert that they are necessary for social life to exist at all. 'It would be difficult,' he writes, 'to describe or account for social life without them.' He also suggests (in an introductory discussion, from R4's Thinking allowed programme a couple of months ago [thanks Martin for the headsup] which is still available here at about 13 minutes) that the tendency to romanticise acquaintances as intimates-in-waiting devalues their social significance. Although the book is not based on any fresh research, the objectives are fully achieved in what is a very readable text, refreshingly illustrated with personal anecdote in an easy-going style.
This book will take its place in the literature of social relations because it draws attention to the fact that acquaintanceship encounters take place regularly and unspectacularly, and it is that which is significant. The settings covered include neighbourhoods, the workplace, and relations between professionals. Further chapters cover passing acquaintances, fleeting acquaintances, and distant and unwanted encounters. The potential for the technologies of remote communication to bring about change in our attitudes to acquaintanceship is explored, although not in thorough detail.
It might have been reassuring for the author to make reference to social survey practise, if only to point out the absence of any recorded place for acquaintances. To illustrate the sort of thing I mean: I noted back in August how the government's Citizenship survey has a section about 'social networks' in which all the questions are about friends. Are acquaintances generally screened out of surveys of social interaction? What sort of question would be needed to include them, and just why would that be justified?
I was disappointed not to find any discussion of intergenerational acquaintance: at the very least, a speculation that levels may have diminished and what that might imply. And ideally I'd have welcomed more attention paid to the significance of greetings and of recognition, but maybe that's a whole separate study for someone some other time.
I'm left with a slight sense of frustration with this book: I've enjoyed the company of someone who is expert in sociology but I wasn't sure I was in the hands of an expert in acquaintanceship. That's a consequence of the feeling that the writing has been a little hurried and under-researched: I was left unsatisfied by the reluctance to bring much of the existing literature into the frame. For our friends in publishing I'm afraid there's the routine contemporary complaint about poor editing (eg three typos on p13). And to return to my original interest in a typology, there's a crying need for one or two graphics to present matrices or continua, which are described only in prose at the end of chapter 1.
And finally, if you don't think the term 'acquaintances' tells you enough, you could pass through here fleetingly and ponder the meaning of 'consequential strangers'.